‘Quartz’ Crystals At Earth’s Core Power Its Magnetic Field

The Earth’s core consists mostly of a huge ball of liquid metal lying at 3000 km beneath its surface, surrounded by a mantle of hot rock. Notably, at such great depths, both the core and mantle are subject to extremely high pressures and temperatures. Furthermore, research indicates that the slow creeping flow of hot buoyant rocks — moving several centimeters per year — carries heat away from the core to the surface, resulting in a very gradual cooling of the core over geological time. However, the degree to which the Earth’s core has cooled since its formation is an area of intense debate amongst Earth scientists.

In 2013 Kei Hirose, now Director of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), reported that the Earth’s core may have cooled by as much as 1000 degrees Celsius since its formation 4.5 billion years ago. This large amount of cooling would be necessary to sustain the geomagnetic field, unless there was another as yet undiscovered source of energy. These results were a major surprise to the deep Earth community, and created what Peter Olson of Johns Hopkins University referred to as, “the New Core Heat Paradox,” in an article published in Science.

Core cooling and energy sources for the geomagnetic field were not the only difficult issues faced by the team. Another unresolved matter was uncertainty about the chemical composition of the core. “The core is mostly iron and some nickel, but also contains about 10% of light alloys such as silicon, oxygen, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen, and other compounds,” Hirose, lead author of the new study to be published in the journal Nature. “We think that many alloys are simultaneously present, but we don’t know the proportion of each candidate element.”

Now, in this latest research carried out in Hirose’s lab at ELSI, the scientists used precision cut diamonds to squeeze tiny dust-sized samples to the same pressures that exist at the Earth’s core. The high temperatures at the interior of the Earth were created by heating samples with a laser beam. By performing experiments with a range of probable alloy compositions under a variety of conditions, Hirose’s and colleagues are trying to identify the unique behavior of different alloy combinations that match the distinct environment that exists at the Earth’s core.

The search of alloys began to yield useful results when Hirose and his collaborators began mixing more than one alloy. “In the past, most research on iron alloys in the core has focused only on the iron and a single alloy,” says Hirose. “But in these experiments we decided to combine two different alloys containing silicon and oxygen, which we strongly believe exist in the core.”

The researchers were surprised to find that when they examined the samples in an electron microscope, the small amounts of silicon and oxygen in the starting sample had combined together to form silicon dioxide crystals — the same composition as the mineral quartz found at the surface of the Earth.

“This result proved important for understanding the energetics and evolution of the core,” says John Hernlund of ELSI, a co-author of the study. “We were excited because our calculations showed that crystallization of silicon dioxide crystals from the core could provide an immense new energy source for powering the Earth’s magnetic field.” The additional boost it provides is plenty enough to solve Olson’s paradox.

The team has also explored the implications of these results for the formation of the Earth and conditions in the early Solar System. Crystallization changes the composition of the core by removing dissolved silicon and oxygen gradually over time. Eventually the process of crystallization will stop when then core runs out of its ancient inventory of either silicon or oxygen.

“Even if you have silicon present, you can’t make silicon dioxide crystals without also having some oxygen available,” says ELSI scientist George Helffrich, who modeled the crystallization process for this study. “But this gives us clues about the original concentration of oxygen and silicon in the core, because only some silicon:oxygen ratios are compatible with this model.”

Prediction: More Gas-Giants Will Be Found Orbiting Sun-Like Stars

New planetary formation models from Carnegie’s Alan Boss indicate that there may be an undiscovered population of gas giant planets orbiting around Sun-like stars at distances similar to those of Jupiter and Saturn. His work is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

The population of exoplanets discovered by ongoing planet-hunting projects continues to increase. These discoveries can improve models that predict where to look for more of them.

The planets predicted by Boss in this study could hold the key to solving a longstanding debate about the formation of our Solar System’s giant planets out of the disk of gas and dust that surrounded the Sun in its youth.

One theory holds that gas giants form just like terrestrial planets do — by the slow accretion of rocky material from the rotating disk — until the object contains enough material to gravitationally attract a very large envelope of gas around a solid core. The other theory states that gas giant planets form rapidly when the disk gas forms spiral arms, which increase in mass and density until distinct clumps form that coalesce into baby gas giant planets.

One problem with the first option, called core accretion, is that it can’t explain how gas giant planets form beyond a certain orbital distance from their host stars — a phenomenon that is increasingly found by intrepid planet hunters. However, models of the second theory, called disk instability, have indicated the formation of planets with orbits between about 20 and 50 times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

“Given the existence of gas giant planets on such wide orbits, disk instability or something similar must be involved in the creation of at least some exoplanets,” Boss said. “However, whether or not this method could create closer-orbiting gas giant planets remains unanswered.”

Boss set out to use his modeling tools to learn if gas giant planets can form closer to their host stars by taking a new look at the disk-cooling process. His simulations indicate that there may be a largely unseen population of gas giant planets orbiting Sun-like stars at distances between 6 and 16 times that separating Earth and the Sun. (For context Jupiter is just over five times as distant from the Sun as Earth is, and Saturn is over nine times as distant.)

“NASA’s upcoming Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope may be ideally suited to test my predictions here,” Boss added.

Experiments Call Origin Of Earth’s Iron Into Question

New research from The University of Texas at Austin reveals that the Earth’s unique iron composition isn’t linked to the formation of the planet’s core, calling into question a prevailing theory about the events that shaped our planet during its earliest years.

The research, published in Nature Communications on Feb. 20, opens the door for other competing theories about why the Earth, relative to other planets, has higher levels of heavy iron isotopes. Among them: light iron isotopes may have been vaporized into space by a large impact with another planet that formed the moon; the slow churning of the mantle as it makes and recycles the Earth’s crust may preferentially incorporate heavy iron into rock; or, the composition of the raw material that formed the planet in its earliest days may have been enriched with heavy iron.

An isotope is a variety of atom that has a different weight from other atoms of the same element because it has a different numbers of neutrons.

“The Earth’s core formation was probably the biggest event affecting Earth’s history. Materials that make up the whole Earth were melted and differentiated,” said Jung-Fu Lin, a professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and one of the study’s authors. “But in this study, we say that there must be other origins for Earth’s iron isotope anomaly.”

Jin Liu, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, led the research while earning his Ph.D. at the Jackson School. Collaborators include scientists from The University of Chicago, Sorbonne Universities in France, Argonne National Laboratory, the Center for High Pressure Science and Advanced Technology Research in China, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Rock samples from other planetary bodies and objects — ranging from the moon, to Mars, to ancient meteorites called chondrites — all share about the same ratio of heavy to light iron isotopes. In comparison to these samples from space, rocks from Earth have about 0.01 percent more heavy iron isotopes than light isotopes.

That might not sound like much, but Lin said it’s significant enough to make the Earth’s iron composition unique among known worlds.

“This 0.01 percent anomaly is very significant compared with, say, chondrites,” Lin said. “This significant difference thus represents a different source or origin of our planet.”

Lin said that one of the most popular theories to explain the Earth’s iron signature is that the relatively large size of the planet (compared with other rocky bodies in the solar system) created high pressure and high temperature conditions during core formation that made different proportions of heavy and light iron isotopes accumulate in the core and mantle. This resulted in a larger share of heavy iron isotopes bonding with elements that make up the rocky mantle, while lighter iron isotopes bonded together and with other trace metals to form the Earth’s core.

But when the research team used a diamond anvil to subject small samples of metal alloys and silicate rocks to core formation pressures, they not only found that the iron isotopes stayed put, but that the bonds between iron and other elements got stronger. Instead of breaking and rebonding with common mantle or core elements, the initial bond configuration got sturdier.

“Our high pressure studies find that iron isotopic fractionation between silicate mantle and metal core is minimal,” said Liu, the lead author.

Co-author Nicolas Dauphas, a professor at the University of Chicago, emphasized that analyzing the atomic scale measurements was a feat unto itself.

“One has to use sophisticated mathematical techniques to make sense of the measurements,” he said. “It took a dream team to pull this off.”

Helen Williams, a geology lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said it’s difficult to know the physical conditions of Earth’s core formation, but that the high pressures in the experiment make for a more realistic simulation.

“This is a really elegant study using a highly novel approach that confirms older experimental results and extends them to much higher pressures appropriate to the likely conditions of core-mantle equilibrium on Earth,” Williams said.

Lin said it will take more research to uncover the reason for the Earth’s unique iron signature, and that experiments that approximate early conditions on Earth will play a key role because rocks from the core are impossible to attain.

Saturn’s Rings Viewed In The Mid-Infrared Show Bright Cassini Division

A team of researchers has succeeded in measuring the brightnesses and temperatures of Saturn’s rings using the mid-infrared images taken by the Subaru Telescope in 2008. The images are the highest resolution ground-based views ever made. They reveal that, at that time, the Cassini Division and the C ring were brighter than the other rings in the mid-infrared light and that the brightness contrast appeared to be the inverse of that seen in the visible light. The data give important insights into the nature of Saturn’s rings.

The beautiful appearance of Saturn and its rings has always fascinated people. The rings consist of countless numbers of ice particles orbiting above Saturn’s equator. However, their detailed origin and nature remain unknown. Spacecraft- and ground-based telescopes have tackled that mystery with many observations at various wavelengths and methods. The international Cassini mission led by NASA has been observing Saturn and its rings for more than 10 years, and has released a huge number of beautiful images.

Subaru Views Saturn

The Subaru Telescope also has observed Saturn several times over the years. Dr. Hideaki Fujiwara, Subaru Public Information Officer/Scientist, analyzed data taken in January 2008 using the Cooled Mid-Infrared Camera and Spectrometer (COMICS) on the telescope to produce a beautiful image of Saturn for public information purposes. During the analysis, he noticed that the appearance of Saturn’s rings in the mid-infrared part of the spectrum was totally different from what is seen in the visible light

Saturn’s main rings consist of the C, B, and A rings, each with different populations of particles. The Cassini Division separates the B and A rings. The 2008 image shows that the Cassini Division and the C ring are brighter in the mid-infrared wavelengths than the B and A rings appear to be. This brightness contrast is the inverse of how they appear in the visible light, where the B and A rings are always brighter than the Cassini Division and the C ring.

“Thermal emission” from ring particles is observed in the mid-infrared, where warmer particles are brighter. The team measured the temperatures of the rings from the images, which revealed that the Cassini Division and the C ring are warmer than the B and A rings. The team concluded that this was because the particles in the Cassini Division and C ring are more easily heated by solar light due to their sparser populations and darker surfaces.

On the other hand, in the visible light, observers see sunlight being reflected by the ring particles. Therefore, the B and A rings, with their dense populations of particles, always seem bright in the visible wavelengths, while the Cassini Division and the C ring appear faint. The difference in the emission process explains the inverse brightnesses of Saturn’s rings between the mid-infrared and the visible-light views.

Changing Angles Change the Brightnesses

It turns out that the Cassini Division and the C ring are not always brighter than the B and A rings, even in the mid-infrared. The team investigated images of Saturn’s rings taken in April 2005 with COMICS, and found that the Cassini Division and the C ring were fainter than the B and A rings at that time, which is the same contrast to what was seen in the visible light.

The team concluded that the “inversion” of the brightness of Saturn’s rings between 2005 and 2008 was caused by the seasonal change in the ring opening angle to the Sun and Earth. Since the rotation axis of Saturn inclines compared to its orbital plane around the Sun, the ring opening angle to the Sun changes over a 15-year cycle. This makes a seasonal variation in the solar heating of the ring particles. The change in the opening angle viewed from the Earth affects the apparent filling factor of the particles in the rings. These two variations — the temperature and the observed filling factor of the particles — led to the change in the mid-infrared appearance of Saturn’s rings.

The data taken with the Subaru Telescope revealed that the Cassini Division and the C ring are sometimes bright in the mid-infrared though they are always faint in visible light. “I am so happy that the public information activities of the Subaru Telescope, of which I am in charge, led to this scientific finding,” said Dr. Fujiwara. “We are going to observe Saturn again in May 2017 and hope to investigate the nature of Saturn’s rings further by taking advantages of observations with space missions and ground-based telescopes.”

Mars More Earth-Like Than Moon-Like

Mars’ mantle may be more complicated than previously thought. In a new study published in the Nature-affiliated journal Scientific Reports, researchers at LSU document geochemical changes over time in the lava flows of Elysium, a major martian volcanic province.

LSU Geology and Geophysics graduate researcher David Susko led the study with colleagues at LSU including his advisor Suniti Karunatillake, the University of Rahuna in Sri Lanka, the SETI Institute, Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA Ames, and the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie in France.

They found that the unusual chemistry of lava flows around Elysium is consistent with primary magmatic processes, such as a heterogeneous mantle beneath Mars’ surface or the weight of the overlying volcanic mountain causing different layers of the mantle to melt at different temperatures as they rise to the surface over time.

Elysium is a giant volcanic complex on Mars, the second largest behind Olympic Mons. For scale, it rises to twice the height of Earth’s Mount Everest, or approximately 16 kilometers. Geologically, however, Elysium is more like Earth’s Tibesti Mountains in Chad, the Emi Koussi in particular, than Everest. This comparison is based on images of the region from the Mars Orbiter Camera, or MOC, aboard the Mars Global Surveyor, or MGS, Mission.

Elysium is also unique among martian volcanoes. It’s isolated in the northern lowlands of the planet, whereas most other volcanic complexes on Mars cluster in the ancient southern highlands. Elysium also has patches of lava flows that are remarkably young for a planet often considered geologically silent.

“Most of the volcanic features we look at on Mars are in the range of 3-4 billion years old,” Susko said. “There are some patches of lava flows on Elysium that we estimate to be 3-4 million years old, so three orders of magnitude younger. In geologic timescales, 3 million years ago is like yesterday.”

In fact, Elysium’s volcanoes hypothetically could still erupt, Susko said, although further research is needed to confirm this. “At least, we can’t yet rule out active volcanoes on Mars,” Susko said. “Which is very exciting.”

Susko’s work in particular reveals that the composition of volcanoes on Mars may evolve over their eruptive history. In earlier research led by Karunatillake, assistant professor in LSU’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, researchers in LSU’s Planetary Science Lab, or PSL, found that particular regions of Elysium and the surrounding shallow subsurface of Mars are geochemically anomalous, strange even relative to other volcanic regions on Mars. They are depleted in the radioactive elements thorium and potassium. Elysium is one of only two igneous provinces on Mars where researchers have found such low levels of these elements so far.

“Because thorium and potassium are radioactive, they are some of the most reliable geochemical signatures that we have on Mars,” Susko said. “They act like beacons emitting their own gamma photons. These elements also often couple in volcanic settings on Earth.”

In their new paper, Susko and colleagues started to piece together the geologic history of Elysium, an expansive volcanic region on Mars characterized by strange chemistry. They sought to uncover why some of Elysium’s lava flows are so geochemically unusual, or why they have such low levels of thorium and potassium. Is it because, as other researchers have suspected, glaciers located in this region long ago altered the surface chemistry through aqueous processes? Or is it because these lava flows arose from different parts of Mars’ mantle than other volcanic eruptions on Mars?

Perhaps the mantle has changed over time, meaning that more recent volcanic eruption flows differ chemically from older ones. If so, Susko could use Elysium’s geochemical properties to study how Mars’ bulk mantle has evolved over geologic time, with important insights for future missions to Mars. Understanding the evolutionary history of Mars’ mantle could help researchers gain a better understanding of what kinds of valuable ores and other materials could be found in the crust, as well as whether volcanic hazards could unexpectedly threaten human missions to Mars in the near future. Mars’ mantle likely has a very different history than Earth’s mantle because the plate tectonics on Earth are absent on Mars as far as researchers know. The history of the bulk interior of the red planet also remains a mystery.

Susko and colleagues at LSU analyzed geochemical and surface morphology data from Elysium using instruments on board NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter (2001) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006). They had to account for the dust that blankets Mars’ surface in the aftermath of strong dust storms, to make sure that the shallow subsurface chemistry actually reflected Elysium’s igneous material and not the overlying dust.

Through crater counting, the researchers found differences in age between the northwest and the southeast regions of Elysium — about 850 million years of difference. They also found that the younger southeast regions are geochemically different from the older regions, and that these differences in fact relate to igneous processes, not secondary processes like the interaction of water or ice with the surface of Elysium in the past.

“We determined that while there might have been water in this area in the past, the geochemical properties in the top meter throughout this volcanic province are indicative of igneous processes,” Susko said. “We think levels of thorium and potassium here were depleted over time because of volcanic eruptions over billions of years. The radioactive elements were the first to go in the early eruptions. We are seeing changes in the mantle chemistry over time.”

“Long-lived volcanic systems with changing magma compositions are common on Earth, but an emerging story on Mars,” said James Wray, study co-author and associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech.

Wray led a 2013 study that showed evidence for magma evolution at a different martian volcano, Syrtis Major, in the form of unusual minerals. But such minerals could be originating at the surface of Mars, and are visible only on rare dust-free volcanoes.

“At Elysium we are truly seeing the bulk chemistry change over time, using a technique that could potentially unlock the magmatic history of many more regions across Mars,” he said.

Susko speculates that the very weight of Elysium’s lava flows, which make up a volcanic province six times higher and almost four times wider than its morphological sister on Earth, Emi Koussi, has caused different depths of Mars’ mantle to melt at different temperatures. In different regions of Elysium, lava flows may have come from different parts of the mantle. Seeing chemical differences in different regions of Elysium, Susko and colleagues concluded that Mars’ mantle might be heterogeneous, with different compositions in different areas, or that it may be stratified beneath Elysium.

Overall, Susko’s findings indicate that Mars is a much more geologically complex body than originally thought, perhaps due to various loading effects on the mantle caused by the weight of giant volcanoes.

“It’s more Earth-like than moon-like,” Susko said. “The moon is cut and dry. It often lacks the secondary minerals that occur on Earth due to weathering and igneous-water interactions. For decades, that’s also how we envisioned Mars, as a lifeless rock, full of craters with a number of long inactive volcanoes. We had a very simple view of the red planet. But the more we look at Mars, the less moon-like it becomes. We’re discovering more variety in rock types and geochemical compositions, as seen across the Curiosity Rover’s traverse in Gale Crater, and more potential for viable resource utilization and capacity to sustain a human population on Mars. It’s much easier to survive on a complex planetary body bearing the mineral products of complex geology than on a simpler body like the moon or asteroids.”

Susko plans to continue clarifying the geologic processes that cause the strange chemistry found around Elysium. In the future, he will study these chemical anomalies through computational simulations, to determine if recreating the pressures in Mars’ mantle caused by the weight of giant volcanoes could affect mantle melting to yield the type of chemistry observed within Elysium.

Dating The Milky Way’s Disc

When a star like our sun gets to be very old, after another seven billion years or so, it will no longer be able to sustain burning its nuclear fuel. With only about half of its mass remaining, it will shrink to a fraction of its radius and become a white dwarf star. White dwarfs are common, the most famous one being the companion to the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. As remnants of some of the oldest stars in the galaxy, white dwarfs offer an independent means of dating the lifetimes of different galactic populations.

A globular cluster is a roughly spherical ensemble of stars (as many as several million) that are gravitationally bound together and typically located in the outer regions of galaxies. The white dwarf stars in the Milly Way’s globular clusters reveal an age spread of between eleven and thirteen billion years. By contrast, the thick disk of the galaxy is thought to be older than ten billion years but that figure is not very well constrained. White dwarfs in the disc can be used to refine those age estimates and, since they are closer and brighter to us than those in globular clusters, they can provide more detailed information. However, they are not located in well-defined regions like clusters and so they are also harder to spot.

CfA astronomer Warren Brown and his colleagues used the 6.5-m Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) to obtain spectra of fifty-seven white dwarf candidate stars in the disk first discovered in all-sky surveys. Modeling the spectra of these stars revealed a mixture of types (for example, some stars had atmospheres of pure helium and others of pure hydrogen) and also an age for the disc of eleven billion years. The result is consistent with the current age estimates for the thick disc but also suggests that the current minimum age estimate might be increased. Additional measurements are needed to refine the age range, and the scientists predict that large-scale sky surveys now underway will significantly increase the number of non-cluster white dwarfs and enable the determination of their parameters.

New Study Reaffirms Fluctuation of Earth’s Magnetic Field Prior to Full Reversal

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, The Hebrew University and the University of California has used ancient jar handles to chart the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field over a 600-year period. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes how they were able to accurately date the jar handles, which allowed for measuring the geomagnetic field over time.

The geomagnetic field shields life on Earth from a constant stream of cosmic radiation. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn more about the intensity of the field over time using ancient evidence and to apply this information to understanding how it might behave in the future.

As the team explains, iron oxide particles embedded in clay used to make jars can be used as a measuring device because they become fixed in alignment while the clay is still soft due to the geomagnetic field – once the jar undergoes firing, the particles remain frozen in place. In addition, ancient jar makers stamped and inscribed the handles for tax purposes, leaving clear clues about when they were made.

Thus, to create a single measurement, the researchers would date a given jar handle using historical texts, then examine the iron oxide particles to get a reading regarding magnetic strength. By repeating this process for jar handles created between the 6th and 2nd centuries BCE, the team was able to create a magnetic field strength timeline.

The researchers report that the jar handles revealed a gradual reduction in field strength over the course of the six centuries under study, and that there were also spikes and drops in field strength during some time periods. They found, for example, that field strength spiked at the end of the 8th century BEC, and then sagged again afterwards, losing approximately 27 percent of its strength.

These fluctuations, the team suggests, indicate that we do not need to be worried about the weakening field that has been observed over the past 180 years-they believe it represents normal fluctuations. The new data may also help planet scientists better understand the nature of the geomagnetic field and to answer some questions, such as why fluctuations and changes in direction occur.